Working at the Smithsonian this summer has led me to wonder why there aren’t more museums in the U.S. devoted to the history of sex. We have only one; it’s in New York City, and it’s for-profit, not by choice, but because the New York State Board of Regents said “that the word museum could not be used in a way that would make fun of the term.” And that’s the first barrier to sex museums in the U.S.: the fact that they’re placed in a museum ghetto, with even less prestige than the National Mustard Museum, which, unlike the Museum of Sex, has been granted non-profit status.
I visited the Museum of Sex last weekend with my old college roommate Shoshanna, a great person to tour it with considering that we spent our time at Bennington College penning songs about genital warts and fraternizing with our Aspen Slopes blow-up doll. Since the founder refers to it as “the Smithsonian of sex,” I wanted to like the museum. Unfortunately, it bears no comparison. In theory, I support all sex museums because the more legitimacy given to the study of sexual artifacts, the better the chance that my work will be taken seriously, and more important, that America’s sexual heritage won’t be lost. But the museum, try as it might, just didn’t work. It was simultaneously too serious and too whimsical.
A case in point is their exhibit titled “Sex and the Moving Image” which features film clips playing on a variety of screens, some mounted against the wall, others embedded into the floor. The haphazard locations of the screens mirrored the jumbled nature of what was being shown on them. A few displayed porn, while others showed a grab bag of sexual films including mainstream Hollywood movies, nudist films, and films depicting oral sex. The whole exhibit seemed incoherent, as if the curator didn’t know what story to tell. One of the themes was about sexuality leading to technological innovation, but the exhibit never explored the deeper implications of this. It wasn’t clear whether they were arguing that technologies simply made sexual films more widely available or if technologies led to societal acceptance of depictions of sexuality. They also stuck to the conventional repression-to-liberation narrative, that in the early 1900s, even though there were stag films, they were somehow quaint, that because fellatio was being performed in a Model T, it was charming. This makes for a simple story, but a boring one. And in their vibrator history section, they re-told Maines’ vibrator story, without questioning it, even though a quick glance at scholarly literature would’ve showed them that the story shouldn’t be wholly accepted.
We can’t progress as a culture if we ignore our strongest instinct. This is where the importance of a sex museum comes in. Museums lend their subjects legitimacy. They’re cultural institutions that showcase human ingenuity and creativity. By excluding sex from these monuments we end up erasing a large part of history. Besides, museums haven’t always been a part of high-brow culture. As Michael Sappol notes, anatomical museums from the late 1800s featured models of the genitals and lectures on masturbation. United States Postal Inspector Anthony Comstock “conducted a campaign against the city’s four anatomical museums, confiscated and destroyed most of their objects, and put three of them out of business,” Sappol says. Although I don’t think we should bring back the titillation-masquerading-as-culture ethos to our museums, I do think that we should stop treating museums as sanitized monuments to socially acceptable artifacts.
If we don’t take our sexual past seriously we will lose an important part of our history. We need to recognize that the production of sexual devices hasn’t been a marginal part of American history, but a mainstream one. We need to acknowledge that large corporations like Goodyear, B.F. Goodrich, and Hamilton Beach played a part in this history, a part that they would like to suppress but that is important nonetheless. We need to understand why companies like this no longer make sex toys. Contrary to popular belief, we haven’t progressed to a more liberal sexual culture. This self-congratulatory historical story makes our current society seem more sophisticated and sexually free than that of previous generations. Acknowledging that sexual artifacts are a part of our cultural heritage will help us to tear down this inaccurate and overly simplistic narrative. So let’s stop the prudish giggling and the artificial seriousness when it comes to studying sex. The study of the history of sex is neither a laughable hobby nor the most profound enterprise ever undertaken by mankind. It is somewhere in the middle, suffused with joy and humor and underlined with a sense of the eternal. The two cannot be detached, the humor from the seriousness, the procreation from the orgasm. They’re one in the same. Sex is the most fun thing you’ll ever do, yet it has unbelievably serious consequences. It’s because of this that sex history, if you’re doing it right, never fails to satisfy. –Hallie Lieberman
In other news, my friend who’s a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison just started a really interesting blog on the history of technology. You can read it here: http://rethinktechnology.wordpress.com/